Post written by Pattie

A friend of mine recently asked, “Don’t you get scared sleeping in a tent?”

The short answer is: yes. Absolutely and often.

Well, let me be completely honest: I encounter some level of fear every time I sleep in a tent.

The long answer is: yes. But it’s not that bad, because the main cause of my fear at night is noise + a healthy imagination.

Let me explain…

On our first night camping on the Marufo Vega trail at Big Bend National Park, I laid awake convinced that a critter was only inches from my face, clawing at the tent. I could hear it scratching its little claws at the ground, could see it depressing the tent fabric inwards ever so slightly. I imagined it sniffing and exploring for a weakness in a seam, looking for a way in to our beef jerky and Larabars. I cleared my throat and coughed, hoping to spook the creature into leaving, but it was persistent. I told myself it was harmless, the noise it was making wasn’t loud enough to be anything larger than a squirrel. “I’m fine; I’m the more dangerous animal”, I thought, and though it took well over an hour to do so, I finally fell asleep. When the sun began to brighten up the tent the next morning, I awoke to find the noise unchanged, still present. Now, due to the lack of darkness and my husband awake beside me, I could assess the scratching sound with a more reasonable mind. In the light, I could see the shape of tiny branches brushing the now translucent fabric and realized: the noise I was hearing was only the breeze scraping a thorny bush against the tent. The scratching, though technically not any louder in the sunshine than in the dark, now seemed smaller, less significant, silly to ever have worried about. As I crawled out of the tent and inspected the ground, there were no paw prints, no trace of an animal of any kind. My mind had gotten the better of me and my tired eyes were now wishing they could go back in time and get that hour of sleep back.

The following night proved again that my mind had the better of me. As we camped further down the trail, out in the open on a ridge, there was no bush to scratch and scare me. Nevertheless I lay awake fearing a mountain lion would walk up to our camp. I imagined the noise the padding of paws would make, wondered if I’d even hear the steps at all or if I’d be awoken by the swipe of a claw against my skin. Again, I imagined my fear, and awoke the next morning scolding myself for, once again, wasting precious sleep.

Over a year later, while camping at Smoky Mountain National Park, I awoke to a noise I assumed was a bear’s breath, jarred out of my sleep and into an instant cold sweat. I listened to find out where the bear was, wondering if it would attack me or my husband first. I vividly replayed a scene from the movie Backcountry over and over again in my mind, imagining fighting for my life. I recalled how a fellow hiker had, just hours before we went to bed, shared with us a story of a bear breaking into his food storage in this very park. I hated that hiker for telling us that tale and let my mind wonder if I had kept my chapstick in my pocket or not. Could the bear smell my chapstick? Did he/she think we were food? I trembled and turned to wake up Andoni, realizing instantly that there was no bear, no threat of death lurking outside the tent. I had heard loud breathing, but it was only my husband, deep in sleep, breathing right next to my ear.

This list of misplaced fears could continue down this page in a never ending stream of similar scenarios, a chronicle of lost sleep followed by laughing at myself in the morning.

But yet, despite these experiences, I still get excited to sleep outside among things I fear – not because I’m a thrill seeker – but because I know that most often than not, my perceived fear is greater than the actual risk of something happening.

Sure, there are reasons to be afraid when you sit in your tent at night. Anyone who says they aren’t scared while camping might be considered uninformed. There are serious dangers any time you adventure into the wild, some caused by wildlife, others man-made, and the prudent adventurer will prepare for these threats. There may be dangerous animals such as bears, mountain lions, or snakes in the area. There may be challenging landscape to navigate or even a threat of dangerous insects. No matter your level of ‘expertise’ in hiking or camping, it behooves you and your travelling companions to spend the time to prepare for your trip through the lens of safety. And that is what Andoni and I do. We prepare before our trips, we read about where we are going, learn about proper food storage and protection equipment, and take the time to watch the videos about what to do if [insert animal encounter].

What we don’t do? Let a little fear prevent us from doing something we love.

We’re going camping in a few weekends, and I’m sure by the end of the trip I’ll have another late night fear episode to add to my collection. I may be hesitant to go out and pee in the middle of the night by myself, I may have trouble falling asleep, I might even have a bad dream. But that’s OK, because the views, the fresh air, the feeling of being in the wild – it makes it all worth it.

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